Principal Cast : Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horan, Lamore Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C Hall, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Camille Chen, Zerrick Williams.
Synopsis: A group of friends who meet regularly for game nights find themselves entangled in a real-life mystery when the shady brother of one of them is seemingly kidnapped by dangerous gangsters.
American comedy is a hugely subjective artform: personally, I find a lot of Hollywood’s comedy film output uninteresting, juvenile and playing to the cheapest possible seats. How refreshing it is, then, that Game Night not only plays to the cheap seats, but manages to command decent laughs for all audience members throughout its brisk hour and a half running time. It’s a great time, it really is, despite Jason Bateman’s ultra-dry delivery tending to grate after the umpteenth time, and with superlative performances by both Jesse Plemons (as the creepy police officer living next door to our heroes), Billy Magnussen’s shallow, dimwitted best friend role, and a number of surprising cameo appearances, Game Night hits just the right balance of ribald adult humour, juvenile gross-out punchlines and a dark black comedic streak a mile wide.
Max (Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a long-term married couple who live for games; they met at a quiz night and have loved competing against (and with) each other ever since. They regularly host “game nights” at their house, inviting their friends – married couple Kevin and Michelle (Lamore Morris and Kylie Bunbury), and single lothario Ryan (Billy Magnussen), together with whichever hot young girl he’s dating at the time – to play regularly. Former participant, next door neighbour Gary (Jesse Plemons) and his wife have recently divorced, and Gary’s behaviour is particularly creepy to the group, meaning he is rarely invited. One evening, Max’s entrepreneur brother Brooke (Kyle Chandler) arrives unexpectedly, and invites the group to play a special game night of his own design – one of the group will be “kidnapped”, and clues left behind to locate them, with the winner of the game snagging the keys to Brooke’s expensive sports car. However, as the kidnap game unfolds, Brooke is really taken by a gang of thugs intent on holding him hostage, and while the group initially doesn’t realise it’s real, eventually they have to use their considerable ingenuity to locate a mysterious criminal and rescue Brooke from certain death.
Written by Mark Perez, Game Night is far cleverer than its dopey premise might indicate at first glance. It bears remarkably similar tone to the other preposterous film concept of 2018 in Tag, whereby people dedicated to a specific ideology have to use the skills they’ve picked up within that ideology to thwart some larger issue; whereas Tag resorted to a lot of slapstick and pratfalls to achieve its comedic status, Game Night hinges on a far more adult-oriented sense of humour that, thanks to a game cast (ha!), works beautifully. The primary motivator for Game Night’s propulsive conceit is the dynamic between Max and Brooke, the latter always belittling and undermining the former’s sense of self worth to the point where Max and Annie are having trouble conceiving children. This sets off the competitive nature of Max and Annie in trying to beat Brooke at his own game, which in turn sparks the inability to realise that the game is real, not pretend.
The script is dynamic and filled with laughs both cheap and serious, barely hiding a warmth beneath its black exterior that audiences will empathise with. It’s handled with charm by all involved here, although inexplicably I found Rachel McAdams the least interesting or compelling of the sextet we follow throughout. Bateman does exactly as Bateman does – the man is brilliant at this kind of subtle comedy – although as I mentioned, his performance style did kinda become one-note towards the end of the film. Lamore Morris, Kylie Bunbury and Kyle Chandler are excellent (an ongoing gag about Denzel Washington is a hoot!) while Billy Magnussen’s dimwitted playboy and Jesse Plemons’ uber-creepy neighbour characters are the film’s most memorable. A sequence in which Max bleeds all over Gary’s fluffy white dog will have to squirming with laughter; the inherent tension in Gary’s suspicious nature contrasts beautifully against the more outlandish comedic nature of the story. A couple of big-name cameos throughout the movie also generated laughs and surprises.
Where Game Night separates from the pack of same-same American comedies is in the way it uses its adult rating. The film features a fair amount of violence – from gunshots to basement fight clubs to a plane-on-a-runway chase sequence – and co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (the former of whom is best known for his recurring acting role as Sweets on television series Bones) don’t shy away from the bloodshed, turning the brutality of the film’s premise into a dark farce that works. There’s a legitimate tension in some of the film’s more action-y moments, something that’s rare for a comedy film, and this combination – while not always working every second – gives the movie a pace and an electricity that manifests in genuine fun and laughs. This, to me, is a rarity. Considering the alternative of standard Will Ferrell garbage, Game Night is positively highbrow. In truth, had the film’s comedy been played any darker, there’s every chance it could have worked just as well as an outright horror/thriller in the vein of Escape Room or Get Out.
There’s a lot to enjoy about Game Night, from the cast doing great work with decent material, to the enthusiastic direction and overall production design. The laughs come thick and fast, threaded through the violently brusque adult-themed subplot with a sense of sublime and ridiculous farce. If there’s a word to describe the film, it would be surprising. Surprising that I found it so accessible, surprising that the premise wasn’t as stupid as the synopsis seemed to indicate, and surprising that the comedy and action and textured character development all combined as well as they did. A thoroughly enjoyable romp, I can recommend Game Night for those seeking to avoid the cheap, vulgar genre guff Hollywood typically purges onto us.